Stuck at home through coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong students get help to open up about feelings, needs

Chan Ho-him
·4-min read

Hong Kong schoolchildren stuck at home after months of having classes suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic are learning to open up about their feelings to friends, teachers and parents.

Just Feel, a non-profit organisation started by a group of younger educators, has devised games, posters and a teaching plan to encourage children to share how they feel and foster a compassionate school culture.

Founded in 2018 by teachers Matthew Kwok Tsz-lok and Raymond Yang Sze-ngai, both in their 20s, as well as Anthony Ngai King-kwok, a father in his 30s, the group now has nine members, mostly in their 20s and 30s and with experience in the education sector.

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“During the pandemic, pupils lacked the chance to meet their classmates, while online lessons also meant teachers had fewer opportunities to observe their students. Pupils might also feel more emotionally stressed,” Kwok said.

Just Feel is working with nine primary and secondary schools to run the programme and hopes to expand to more.

(Left to right) Just Feel co-founders Matthew Kwok, Anthony Ngai and Raymond Yang, and project officer Rachel Fok. Photo: Jonathan Wong
(Left to right) Just Feel co-founders Matthew Kwok, Anthony Ngai and Raymond Yang, and project officer Rachel Fok. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The group offers a curriculum and materials for teachers to hold online lessons that encourage pupils to share their feelings and interact regularly, even without in-person classes.

One of the tools provided by Just Feel to schools and parents is a deck of 36 cards featuring various emotions such as “scared”, “curious”, “ambivalent” and “ashamed”. Another 25 cards depict different needs, including “rest”, “learn” and “trust”.

They help to prompt pupils to identify their feelings or needs, and that can be the starting point for describing what they are experiencing.

Kwok and Yang were working as teachers a few years ago when they noticed that pupils found it hard to express their feelings. They decided to do something to change the culture in schools, started Just Feel and now work on it full-time.

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Partnering with other NGOs and funded by various foundations, they raised about HK$400,000 (US$51,600) to support their cause between 2018 and last year. They hope to raise HK$3.5 million this year to expand their work.

Hong Kong students had lessons online for most of last year, and face-to-face classes were suspended again in early December amid the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, with only small groups of pupils allowed to return to their campuses from last month.

One institution Just Feel is working with this academic year is Tak Sun School in Jordan, a government-aided boys’ primary which is running about a dozen lessons related to students’ emotional training.

Among other things, boys in lower primary classes will learn about basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear, as well as self-awareness, while older pupils will have lessons on empathy, diversity, cooperation and responsible decision-making.

Principal Kwok Chiu-kwan said he noticed that the prolonged period of learning from home had left some pupils in a “not too healthy” emotional state.

“Parents might lack the skills to communicate with them, apart from reminding them to study and not be distracted, while they did not get many chances to interact with their teachers,” he said, adding that some boys might lose their temper when they bottled up their feelings.

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“Pupils should learn to express their emotions and needs beginning from a young age, as these are skills which take time to be cultivated.”

He hoped the school, which had about 800 boys, would see an overall improvement in pupils’ emotional well-being and mental health, although he expected that this would be clearer after in-person classes resumed.

“Hopefully, one changed pupil can influence another, and ultimately bring about a positive change to our entire school culture and nurture a healthy atmosphere,” he said.

Michael Choi, whose eight-year-old son Colin is in Primary Three at the school, said he noticed the boy had become more willing to share his feelings, including negative ones, since he began using Just Feel’s deck of cards.

(Left to right) Parent Michael Choi, his son Colin, Tak Sun School principal Kwok Chiu-kwan and teacher Ho Sau-yee. Photo: Jonathan Wong
(Left to right) Parent Michael Choi, his son Colin, Tak Sun School principal Kwok Chiu-kwan and teacher Ho Sau-yee. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“As a parent, I feel more encouraged to ask him about his feelings more often,” he said.

Just Feel hopes its efforts will help influence the behaviour of pupils and parents at home. Some parents had said they experienced more conflicts with their children while staying home during the pandemic.

Feedback from participating schools since 2018 found that most pupils became more willing to express their emotions, and most of the parents who took part in the group’s training grew more confident in understanding their children’s feelings and needs.

Over the year ahead, the group plans to get more schools on board and come up with more tools to help teachers, students and parents in the well-being training curriculum.

Kwok of Just Feel said: “We hope to empower educators and parents to nurture our next generations to embrace empathy, compassion and improve relationships.”

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